Remembering Olive Schreiner 100 Years After Her Death

AiW Guest: Jade Munslow Ong.

AiW note: The 11th of December 2020 marks 100 years since Olive Schreiner’s death. Here, Jade Munslow Ong discusses Schreiner’s legacies as a pioneering feminist, anti-colonialist and author of the first South African novel. 

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100 years after her death, the pioneering writer and radical, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), is remembered primarily as the author of the first South African novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883)Schreiner, TSOAF, as well as for her blistering anti-colonial novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), and the influential feminist polemic, Woman and Labour (1911). Though most famous as a leading feminist and anti-colonialist, Schreiner’s progressivism also extended to freethinking, pacifism, socialism, and, in later life, anti-racism. These various aspects of her political thought can be traced across her writing, including in her collections of allegories, Dreams (1890), Dream Life and Real Life (1893) and the posthumously published Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923); her unfinished novels, From Man to Man (Or Perhaps Only…) (1926) and Undine (1929); and her various essays, public letters and social and political treatise. 

Schreiner’s importance to South African civil rights movements in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is recognised by her place in a permanent exhibition at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and in her posthumous 2003 award of the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for ‘her exceptional contribution to literature and commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy’.Schreiner Various other South African heritage locations, libraries and museums preserve the memory of her life and writings. Most notably, Schreiner’s former home in Cradock is now the Olive Schreiner House Museum, which also plays host to the annual Schreiner Karoo Writers’ Festival, now in its tenth year. It is also possible to visit Schreiner’s final resting place atop the awe-inspiring Buffelskop mountain on the outskirts of the town. Archives at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda, the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town and the Johannesburg Public Library (amongst other locations) play host to collections of Schreiner’s letters and manuscripts. Whilst in Matjiesfontein, tourists can pay to stay in Schreiner’s favourite home, her tiny two-bedroom cottage opposite the railway station, where she was once visited by Rudyard Kipling.

Another of Schreiner’s visitors to Matjiesfontein was none other than arch-imperialist, politician and mining magnate, Cecil Rhodes, with whom Schreiner cultivated a brief friendship in the early 1890s. Schreiner, TrooperAlthough she initially admired Rhodes, describing him in a letter to lifelong friend, Henry Havelock-Ellis, as ‘the only great man & man of genius S. Africa possesses’, she soon turned against him, horrified by his advocacy for the Strop Bill (in which white employers were allowed to beat their black servants), his role in the Jameson Raid, and later for his crushing genocidal activities in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. This last inspired Schreiner to write the novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, which was a punishing critique of the sexual violence and murders conducted as part of Rhodes’ expansionist policies in Southern Africa. Indeed, when looking back at this text from the vantage point of 2020, it is all too tempting to read Schreiner as one of the first and most prominent activists to demand that #RhodesMustFall

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Olive Schreiner’s Dreams. Courtesy of Jade Munslow Ong.

Schreiner’s importance to the Women’s Movement is also one of her great legacies. Not only did she create the first New Woman in literature, the iconic Lyndall in The Story of an African Farm, she also wrote Woman and Labour, a text described by Vera Brittain as ‘the bible of the Woman’s Movement’ (Testament of Youth, 1933: 41). Dreams was also considered a formative feminist text, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman made sure to always carry a copy in her travelling bag. More recently, the 2015 film, Suffragette (dir. Sarah Gavron), shows Emily Davison handing a copy of Dreams to another suffragette before dying under the hooves of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby, whilst lines from one of the allegories in the collection, ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’, are used to close the film. 

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Dreams by Olive Schreiner. Courtesy of Jade Munslow Ong.

Schreiner’s legacies extend beyond her political progressivism of course, as she played a foundational role in the development of South African literary culture, and her innovations in literary form would go on to influence major international writers. Schreiner’s initial impacts were felt most keenly in England, where she had her largest audience. As reader for the publishers, Chapman and Hall, it was novelist and poet George Meredith who helped to bring The Story of an African Farm to light. The novel became a cause célèbre, and brought Schreiner to the attention of various radical thinkers and writers of the time, including Karl Pearson, Eleanor Marx, Edward Carpenter, George Moore and H. Rider Haggard. Some of Schreiner’s allegories were then published by Oscar Wilde in his role as editor of The Woman’s World, and her collection, Dreams, was described by leading Symbolist, Arthur Symons, as a ‘book [that] is like nothing else in English […] it has no forerunners’ (Athenaeum, 47, 10 January 1841). D.H. Lawrence recommended Woman and Labour to his friends, and has Ursula Brangwen read it in The Rainbow, whilst Virginia Woolf described The Story of an African Farm as a ‘remarkable novel […] In it […] we feel ourselves in the presence of a powerful nature which can make us see what it saw, and feel what it felt with astounding vividness’ (The New Republic, 42, 18 March 1925). Later, many Anglophone South African writers would pay tribute to Schreiner, either directly, or through intertextual allusions to her work. Her admirers included Solomon Plaatje, William Plomer, Bessie Head, Richard Rive, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Guy Butler, Athol Fugard, J.M. Coetzee…the list goes on. Still today, Schreiner’s importance to South African literature lives on in the annual Olive Schreiner Prize, which is administered by the English Academy of South Africa. Recipients of this prize have included Sidney Clouts, Oswald Mtshali, Antjie Krog, Ivan Vladislavic, Zakes Mda, amongst many other leading literary figures. 

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Olive Schreiner’s grave on Buffelskop mountain, South Africa. Courtesy of Jade Munslow Ong.

Interest in Schreiner will only increase in the years to come, thanks to initiatives such as the Olive Schreiner Letters Online led by Liz Stanley at the University of Edinburgh, and the forthcoming Edinburgh Edition of the Selected Works of Olive Schreiner, edited by Clare Gill. Beyond the writings too, Schreiner’s commitments to universal franchise, equal rights, justice, and peace, will continue to inspire future generations in South Africa and beyond.

Most of the final years of Schreiner’s life were spent in Europe, after she became trapped in London by the outbreak of the First World War. Here she was lonely and unwell, and devoted much of her intellectual energy to various anti-war writings, including the posthumously published ‘The Dawn of Civilization’ (1921). In 1918, anguished by illness and war, Schreiner wrote to her friend, the civil rights activist Betty Molteno, to say: ‘One must face the future of humanity as bravely & calmly as one must strive to face ones own shortly coming death, & not to fear.’

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Olive Schreiner’s grave on Buffelskop, South Africa. Courtesy of Jade Munslow Ong.

Finally, in August 1920, Schreiner went home to her beloved South Africa, basing herself at Wynberg, in Cape Town. On the night of 10th11th of December 1920, Schreiner died in her sleep. According to biographers, Ruth First and Ann Scott, she died with ‘her glasses […] on, her little mapping pen lay in her right hand, the book she had been reading lay open in her left hand on her chest, the candle had burnt down and out’ (Olive Schreiner: A Biography, 1990: 325).  It seems that Schreiner had passed as bravely and calmly as she might have hoped, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire us ‘not to fear’ and with the tools to ‘face the future of humanity’. 

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IMG_2386 (3)Dr Jade Munslow Ong is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Salford, and author of Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2018). She is currently working on an AHRC-funded project, South African Modernism 1880-2020.



Categories: Academic Research, Books, Writers

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